Hats and buttons
Zoilo Galang’s “Encyclopedia of the Philippines” first appeared in 1936. A second edition of 20 volumes, using the material that survived World War II, appeared in 1958. Galang’s, like all print encyclopedias, was obsolete as soon as it was released, yet it has remained on my shelves as it is a bottomless pit of column material. My go-to volumes in Galang’s encyclopedia are the two on Art: for Fabian de la Rosa’s landmark essay on the development of Philippine art, and the whole volume of photos that document important paintings, sculptures, and antiques lost or destroyed following the 1945 Battle of Manila.
For lack of shelf space, I seriously considered keeping the two Art volumes and selling, giving, or throwing away the other 18 volumes. Fortunately, I realized that while the material in the science, commerce, politics, and education volumes were outdated and unsuitable for reference, these had become “historical.” I closed my eyes and opened a volume at random to “Minor Industries in the Philippines.” Reading this made me realize I know so little of the Philippines outside of the late 19th century.
Soft drinks are part of everyday life today, the generation of our lolos and lolas had aerated or carbonated water, an industry that goes way back to the Spanish period. My great-grandmother, Bartolomea Nuqui (who had a succession of three husbands), had a carbonating machine in Guagua, Pampanga, and bottled a soft drink line called La Familia. In the days before Perrier and overpriced fizzy water became fashionable, Filipinos had the choice between agua con gas (aerated water) or agua sin gas literally “water without gas” better known as “still water.” Aerated water came with lemon or other flavors. Then, during the American period, San Miguel produced Royal Tru-Orange, the only flavor among many that survived and is known today either as “Royal” or “RTO.” This helps us understand why Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name to “KFC,” so that the health conscious would not be turned off by the word “fried.” In political rebranding, Ferdinand Marcos is a name heavy with baggage, that’s why his namesake cannot be identified as “Junior” and had to become “BBM.”
The first bakery in Manila, according to Galang, was owned by the government and opened in 1631. That was centuries before “hot pan de sal” became a fad in the 1970s. In a fit of nostalgia, we who live in the age of microwave and conduction ovens now have a choice of pan de sal baked in a traditional wood-fired oven or pugon. Aside from bread, some prewar bakeries also made sweets or candies with the pioneer being M.A. Clarke.
Buttons may have been a minor industry in the prewar Philippines, but in 1918, the United States imported P2.5 million worth of buttons! These buttons were not the mass-produced plastic ones we have today. Prewar Philippine buttons were made from seashells: trocha, pearl shell, green snail, and chambered nautilus. Due to limited domestic demand, most of our shells and pearls were exported, but what about buttons from coconut shell, wood, and other materials?
In 1919, the Philippines exported P1,470,026 worth of hats. At the time, hat-making was a cottage industry and the materials used were buntal, buri hemp, and bamboo. The best hats were from Baliuag and Lucban that all rivaled the world- famous Panama hats. Reading this today made me wonder when hats fell out of fashion. Common sense—that is not common—dictates that hats should be second skin to people who live in the tropics. At the time Galang published his encyclopedia, there was only one large hat factory in operation. It also manufactured straw hats, wool hats, and umbrellas. Then, as now businessmen looked longingly at the China market, Galang wrote: “… with its hundreds of millions of souls, many of whom have already begun to wear hats, [it] is also a big potential market for [hats].” Maybe, we lost sales because the Chinese decided to make cheaper hats themselves and competed with ours.
These old trade figures may be obsolete today. But read by a historian today, these should not stop at being reflections on the past, but provide leads to opportunities for the present and the future.
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